It’s Seed-Starting Time, Part 1

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Spring has arrived really, really early here in central Michigan. Temperatures have consistently been in the 60’s and 70’s for a couple of weeks, which is just… crazy. Typically, we have good snows in March. Heck, last year at this time, it didn’t often get much above 30 degrees.  We’re easily a month ahead of schedule. I hope we don’t get a vicious cold snap, which will kill the emerging insects, buds, and flowers.

This is a chart of temperatures automatically measured and recorded outside our house:

temperature graph

Because we went from 25 degrees to 70 degrees in literally the span of a week, spring has caught me with my pants down, gardening-wise, and I spent the weekend frantically stuffing seeds into trays.

Gardening is not something I especially enjoy; I like fresh, organic, non-GMO veggies close at hand, I like not paying out the wazoo for them, and I like knowing exactly what was done to them during their little lives.

lettuce plants in a raised bed

I do not enjoy weeding, or breaking soil in the hot sun, or manually finding and crushing 80 metric honkloads of destructive bugs trying to reap all the benefits of my hard work.

japanese beetles destroying a bean plant

No. For me, gardening is a necessary part of a healthy life, much like drinking a lot of water, and pooping.

Thus, anything I can do to make it easier on myself – sign me up, man! If you are looking for more sustainable, frugal ways to get your garden started… you may wish to go read my friend Jill’s posts on how she does things, especially the post on using newspaper for pots. That woman is a veritable fount of information for this kind of thing, and I stand in awe of her.

If you do want to use a newspaper solution, this little device can make it easier:

newspaper seedling pot mold

Since I was not prepared for spring to have arrived so suddenly, I didn’t have time to order  my preferred seed-starting bits and pieces from Gardener’s Supply. My local gardening shops don’t carry the things I usually want, so I reluctantly order online.

Instead, I found what I could at a local store – the Burpee “Eco-Friendly” planting system.

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For the record, I am not a fan of Burpee. However, it’s what was available Right Frickin’ Now, and was the least-evil-yet-still-convenient product I could find locally.

To use the patented Homestead Geek seed-starting methods, you will need:

  • A stack of commercial seed-starting trays – I prefer the sort of trays which come with capillary mats because they evenly and reliably self-water (substitute peat pots, newspapers, whatever you like)
  • Several gallons ofMany gallons of All the Water in the Whole World
  • An absolutely filthy table within a room you don’t mind also becoming filthy
  • Seed-starting soil mix, or your own garden soil (I prefer seed starter for two reasons: 1.) It’s sterile, whereas my soil may have diseases left over from last year; 2.) it doesn’t require digging and hauling – remember, I need this to be Easy.
  • Seeds
  • Stirring stick (I use a pencil)
  • Paper and pencil/pen for writing down what went where
  • A warm place to store your newly-planted seeds.
  • A stalwart ability to ignore getting dirt under your nails
  • Optional: Germination mat
  • Optional: A dog to periodically interrupt you for playing tug
  • Optional: Beverages and possibly snacks

We’re starting out with Completely Empty Growing Shelves in our basement utility room:

growing shelves

The Engineir constructed these out of kitchen shelves, work lights, and grow bulbs. Gardener’s Supply offers pre-built versions, but they are a.) a heck of a lot more expensive, and b.) a heck of a lot smaller.

growing shelves

For the light fixtures, I recommend these if you can afford them. If not (and we can’t, either,) standard work light fixtures will do, using either T5 or T12 plant bulbs. If growing your seeds in a place without adequate sunlight, you must use plant/aquarium bulbs! “Daylight” bulbs will not adequately meet your plants’ needs.

sensorBecause we are geeks who enjoy measuring and charting things, The Engineir also installed a temperature and humidity sensor on the racks, just in case. This is, of course, not really necessary – but it’s neat to be able to see the charts:

rack temperature graph

Ok, let’s get down to planting!

Many of the commercial seed-starting trays come with tiny little pellets made of coconut coir. What’s coir? I had no idea, either, so I looked it up. Basically, it’s ground-up coconut bits – very sustainable stuff. The Burpee Eco-Friendly variety is also ostensibly organic. The pellets look like this:

coir pellet

In their little growing cells, they look like this:

coir pellets in container

Quietly waiting to fulfill their next purpose in life. Innocuous. Sleeping. Flat and compact.

pouring water over coir pelletsFlat and compact, that is, until we add our water. That’s when the fun begins! The little pellets immediately begin hydrating, visibly and audibly. It takes only a few moments for them to transform from “pellets” into “growth substrate.”

To better demonstrate how the self-watering system works, here’s an exploded diagram:

exploded diagram of self-watering container

 I first tried this type of seed tray last year, and I was incredibly skeptical of how well the capillary mat system would work. However, it’s outstanding. We don’t have a sink or faucet in the basement, so I have to schlep water up and down the stairs to water the plants. These trays ensure I only have to do that a couple of times per week. They keep an even moisture level in all pots, provided there is water in the reservoir. Amazing! Space! Age! Technology!

Pots on the capillary mat:

self-watering capillary mat

And the mat itself:

self-watering capillary mat

The instructions on these trays typically says to “fully assemble” the entire system, and then to pour water over the pellets. The excess will flow down over the capillary mat and into the tray beneath (the reservoir.) However, the trouble with this is that the pellets don’t soak up enough water on the first pour, which results in having to add more, and possibly overflowing the reservoir – or, at the very least, making it more difficult to move.

My solution to this tiny micro-problem is to place the pellet trays directly into the reservoir without the stands and mat in place. The result is the pellets can immediately soak up all the water in the tray and “fully inflate,” leaving an empty, easy-to-transport tray, and more quickly-hydrated coir substrate.

Twenty-ish seconds after adding water:

coir pellets expanding with water

Thirty-ish seconds:

coir pellets expanding with water

At this point, I typically add more water and then stir to break up the pellets and distribute them throughout the growth cell. After that’s done, it looks like this:

completely expanded coir pellets

We’re ready for seeds!

burpee plant-o-gramBurpee helpfully provides a “Plant-O-Gram” with slots for each growth cell. They also have a cockamamie labeling system I haven’t quite figured out – they have A, B, C, and D written on the center ribs of the dividers, and out on the edges of the Plant-O-Gram. I use a system easier for me to follow – On both the paper and the tray itself, I label the rows A, B, C, and D, and then the columns 1 – 8.  I just write down which seeds go into which cell Easy-peasy. I also number each tray and chart, in the likely event the two become separated during their stay in our messy, messy basement.

I really can’t emphasize finding a labeling system that works for you. Last year, my charts were useless to me, as the trays got rotated around, and I had not had the foresight to label the “front” of each one. In April and May, I transplanted rows of “Mystery Brassica,” and labeled my tomato transplants with tags like, “Marglobe, maybe?”

My handwriting doesn’t help matters any. In grammar school, I used to get called down to the principal’s office to discuss my illegible chicken scratch. His lectures didn’t take, as shown here, by this handwriting sample:

bad handwriting

Start to finish, the garden was a train wreck last year, due to a late start, horrible weather and bugs, and my struggling with low energy and motivation.

catnip seedsThis year, I’m hoping for Better. Each new gardening season is a fresh canvas, so full of possibilities! And it all starts out with these teeny, tiny, seeds.

Typically, I place two seeds into each cell. For some harder-to-grow species, such as peppers, I do three to four to ensure I get at least one good germination per cell.  I hate thinning perfectly viable plants! It seems so wasteful. Planting two seeds per cell, I’ll more than likely be killing off 50% of my seedlings, just to ensure I get plants out of each cell. For people who plant three to four seeds, their cull rate is obviously higher. I’ve found two seeds is usually sufficient, and I still hate the waste. All of these pepper plants from last year would likely have grown and thrived; however, two were doomed to die needlessly.

pepper seedlings

The instructions on my seed packets say to plant the seeds no deeper than two to three times the size of the seed itself. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the kind of time it would take to precisely measure this sort of thing, so I ballpark it. Typically, I dig a small trench with my fingertip and call it good.

coir pellets expanding with water

Remember, most seeds either fall onto the ground and germinate there, or are first eaten and passed through the digestive system of some passing animal, then pooped out onto the ground in their own personal pile of compost. Nature is bad-ass, and does not fool around in terms of survival of the fittest.

seedlingsHowever, we’re aiming for optimal germination, not simply “some germination,” and we therefore have to be a bit more careful. Use common sense – plant tiny seeds (such as lettuces, herbs, cabbages, et cetera,) with only a 1/4″ or so of substrate over the top. Larger seeds (spinach, peppers, et cetera,) do fine with up to 1/2″ over them.

The goal is to provide enough substrate to allow germination, followed by a short growing period to establish a root and send up a leaf shoot. This all happens in the dark. However, soon after germination occurs, the plant needs to start using photosynthesis to produce energy. If the leaf shoot doesn’t find the light it needs soon enough, it may die, or at least become weakened.

After scattering the substrate over the seeds, it’s important to tamp it down well. This ensures even moisture and nutrient access all over the seeds; we don’t want air pockets, which can delay or prevent germination. Don’t go nuts smashing the soil down – just press firmly.

In a few days to a few weeks, you’ll have something looking like this (although you’ll want to have your lights closer to your seedlings, so they don’t get all leggy like ours did.)

You’ll be well on your way to gardening success!

seedlings

seedlings

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